Chris Corsano is a free jazz drummer. If that description wards off some listeners, that’s too bad, because Corsano36, male, shaved head and originally from New Jerseyis exactly the kind of free jazz drummer who could make a new population segment interested in free jazz.
It’s not that Corsano’s music transcends genre: Even at its most accessible, it is improvised in the new/ ecstatic/ cosmic/ spiritual/ fire/ freak-out strain that has been bearing musicians into beloved obscurity since the mid-1960s. But Corsano’s musicianship is both instantly apparent and utterly transformative, bringing a rhythmic clarity to group improvisation. He doesn’t so much keep time as invent it with a torrent of freedom and finesse and creation far that pushes past the role (and tools) of a traditional drummer. At Hopscotch, he will play nearly a dozen times, both solo and as the festival’s first-ever Improviser-in-Residence. He’ll bring that fire music to other acts and help organize time by his own inescapable logic.
Reared on classic rock but coming of age via punk, Corsano’s particular path to bliss involved Harry Pussy, Miami-bred noiseniks he saw during a summer 1996 stay in Amherst, Mass. In between semesters at nearby Hampshire College, Corsano saw saxophonists William Parker and Paul Flaherty, plus Daniel Carter and Sabir Mateen’s Test. Those acts changed his perception of musical possibility.
“I had only heard maybe a few Ornette Coleman records from the ’60s prior to this,” he says. “Seeing that there were people in the present doing it in their own way without it feeling like a weak nostalgia trip was eye-opening for my 19-year-old self. There was this unbridled energy coupled with the rawest sounds one second that could turn into the most beautiful the next. I just didn’t feel that from a lot of the rock gigs I was seeing at the time. I was probably just going to the wrong ones, but the improvised stuff made everything else I’d heard up to that point seem staid in comparison.”
Corsano woodshedded his way into the local scene, cementing a long-lasting creative partnership with Flaherty. Within a few years, gigs with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Jim O’ Rourke and stints in Six Organs of Admittance and Massachusetts free-psych collective Sunburned Hand of the Man followed. “I don’t think I’ve ever stopped woodshedding,” he allows. After a spell in Europe, Corsano is now based in the United States again, living a few hundred miles north of Manhattan.
To see Corsano perform alone is to hear the drummer’s tics, tricks and techniques coalesce into a performance that could never, under any circumstances, be described as a drum solo, despite visual cues to the contrary. Pulling viola strings over a snare drum to create bowed drones, blowing into saxophone mouthpieces to vibrate drumheads and dropping butter knives on the floor tom to enact sharp clatters, Corsano’s outside-the-kit thinking is both inspired and inspiring. His technique bears elements of near-Olympic beauty, one-handed insect twitches on the snare blossoming into a Roman candle’s cracks.
“It’s a bit like the way people use language,” Corsano says of the relationship between practicing and gigging. “You might be conscious of a certain word choice you’re making or how you phrase an idea, but there are also these other elements going on that are near-automatic. There are too many movements and second-by-second decisions going on to intellectualize all of them. And who would want to anyway? I’m chasing after a certain sound in my head, not the idealized realization of techniques. The body adjusts and adapts until the ears get what they want.”
Corsano has referred to his immediate forebears as “Domo Domo [Glenn] Kotche” and “Domo Domo [Tim] Barnes,” two free drummers who have worked within the realms of popular rock bands like Wilco. Part of a new school of object-oriented drummers, Corsano has had his own brushes with popdom, drumming as part of Björk’s Volta ensemble in 2007. Besides that, though, he has stayed firmly in the noise-jazz underground; for Corsano, group improvisation is the crucible.
As such, this has been a typically all-over year for him. He appears on Formerly Extinct, the sophomore recording by the ethno-meltdown supertrio Rangda, featuring the Sun City Girls’ Richard Bishop and Six Organs of Admittance’s Ben Chasny on guitars. He has a new solo disc, Cuts, compiling recent adventures in home recording. “I probably spend just as much time on non-percussive things as with drums,” he notes, explaining the part of his accumulating discography that shows off an impressive sub-catalogue of miniatures with keyboards and other noisemakers. There’s also The Count Visits, a recent collaboration with bassist Matthew Heyner and Mick Flower. Flower’s rainbow-delically droning Indian banjo is a magical match for Corsano’s own technicolor drums.
In the end, what’s special about Corsano isn’t so much the rhythms he is or isn’t abstracting, nor even the way he keeps everything around him in forward motion, rarely surrendering to the simple trap of a beat. Rather, it’s Corsano himself, whose performances and ideas are a coherent, persuasive expression of the individual voice. He might, in fact, be a free jazz drummer. But mostly he makes music.
This article appeared in print with the headline “By his time.”